Several years ago, in the car on my way to work I would tune in to an ethnic radio station. Each morning the ebullient radio show hostess would start her 6 am shift with a breathless intonation of “Good morning, Jai Sriram, Sat Sri Akal, Ya Ali Madad, Namaskar, As-salaam Alaikum” in an unremitting stream of enthusiastic devotion.
One day I gathered courage and called in to compliment her for putting on a great show. Then, after confirming with her that we were off-line I humbly suggested that she might consider changing her opening greeting as, to me it appeared to be diametrical to her intentions. She was immediately on her guard but courteously asked me to explain. I pointed out that in trying to be all-inclusive she was in fact unintentionally excluding people. She could not understand this. I explained that while she was trying to acknowledge and engage listeners of all faiths, those communities not specifically included in her greeting were being left out and her actions to be all-inclusive were in fact marginalizing and excluding people. I suggested without success that it might be best to just restrict her daily greeting to a cheery, non-denominational “good morning.”
Around 5 years ago, without first checking with me a friend recommended my name to an institution that was organizing a discussion on “Suburban Spirituality – How Do We Go About Connecting Diverse Communities.” I was informed that more details would follow in due course. After persistent requests to the organizers, eventually I received an email and a flyer three days before the event. I was completely taken aback to discover that the promotional material identified me as a panelist at an inter-faith panel discussion with a Rabi, a Catholic priest and a Muslim maulvi sahib! Apparently, I had been chosen to represent Hindu faith and balance out the panel! I berated my “friend” for putting me in a bind especially since I am neither particularly religious nor a “person of faith”. She merely reiterated that “You will do just fine” adding that it was in any case too late for me to pull out of the event.
And so there I was sharing the podium with three very distinguished, reverential personages in their priestly raiment. Introducing myself, I mumbled apologetically about neither truly being a representative of any one faith, nor adhering to religious beliefs or practicing rituals. Also, I acknowledged not keeping beef off my dinner plate and (at the time) remained partial to imbibing a wee dram or more of the finest amber tinted beverage when the desire arose. It goes to the credit of my fellow-panelists that they smilingly chose to overlook my indiscretions and lesser stature in matters non-temporal.
Over the next hour, the three gentlemen explained in detail how they used their respective places of worship – the church, synagogue and the mosque and their congregations to welcome newcomers and help them settle in their communities. They spoke about inter-faith activities to build bridges and provide food, childcare support and other assistance to all people irrespective of their religious beliefs. It was an uplifting experience for me and I learned first hand of all the work being done selflessly by so many men, women and youth in diverse communities across our wonderful country to help those in need.
When called upon to speak, I stated it was my understanding that several Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras, Ismaili, Ahmadiyya and other congregations were also no doubt doing their bit to support the wider communities. But, I confessed to being confused and sought the indulgence of the panelists and members of the audience to look afresh at things from my perspective.
On the flip chart that was provided, I marked an “X” in the center of a blank page and said, “This represents me”. I then drew a wide circle around the “X”. “This” I added, pointing to the space bounded by the circumference of the circle, “is my ecosystem. You might say it represents what I might believe in – faith, values, family, community – call it what you will, using any label.” I then proceeded to erase a small segment of the circumference of the circle and said, “By erasing a portion of this self-imposed limit around ourselves we create the small opening to allow others into our “circle”. We are now open to interacting with and serving them.” But, I asked the people in the room, “Why do we even have to draw the restrictive circle that imprisons us and serves to keep others away from our core? And then, by creating the opening do we feel noble for indulgently accepting “the other” in spite of the underlying differences in faith or values?”
In Hindu philosophy, it is said “AHM TAT – I am That”. Simultaneously, we greet each other with a Namaste – I bow to, or Salute Thee, acknowledging the omnipresent divinity of our single, collective Creator in all beings. “Love others as thou would love thyself” is a common refrain that is propounded often and loudest from every pulpit but is not embraced in real life. This is the only reality that can bring us together – not Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other label that we employ for our own belief. Then we have to try hard to live up to the image we weave into our chosen belief or faith.
“Ae meri gul-zameen tujhe chaah thi ik kitaab ki
Ahl-e-kitaab ne magar kyaa teraa haal kar diyaa”
[Oh my flower-strewn (mother)land all you had desired was a Book
But, what have the People of the Book (implying Christians, Muslims, Jews, Zorastrians) reduced you to] – Parveen Shakir